Dr Julian Lewis: I congratulate the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee (Sir William Cash) and all its members on securing this important debate on the Floor of the House and on their contributions.
I am particularly pleased to have a brief opportunity to take up where my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) left off. I regard the deal with Iran as a positive development. I also regard the regime in Iran as thoroughly undesirable and potentially dangerous, but thoroughly capable of modernisation and reform if handled correctly by the international community. I entirely concur with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), a fellow member of the Select Committee on Defence whose presence I greatly value, on the terrible way in which Christians in particular, Baha’i faith members and other minorities are treated. The behaviour of such a regime, awful though it is, is no more awful than the behaviour of Stalinist Russia. In fact, Stalinist Russia was responsible for innumerable deaths, yet did not produce World War Three, which might easily have happened in the nuclear age or, even if nuclear weapons had not been invented, might perhaps have been more likely to happen in the aftermath of World War Two.
Where am I leading with this line of argument? It will soon become apparent, because some of us on the Conservative Benches are, according to reports in the paper, being exhorted – I have not been exhorted on the subject myself – in relation to the dilemmas of the Middle East, to be more like Churchill than Chamberlain. While I was listening to earlier contributions, a memory stirred and I took the opportunity to check. The memory was correct. When Winston Churchill wrote his multi-volume history of The Second World War, volume 3 was entitled “The Grand Alliance”.
What was the Grand Alliance? It was the coming together of three very different powers, at least one of which was utterly incompatible on normal criteria with the other two. The three powers were, of course, the British Empire, as it still was, the United States of America and Soviet Russia. Churchill was the prime example of someone who knew how to do what one must do in an imperfect, evil and dangerous world when a conflict breaks out. He knew how to choose in an undesirable dilemma which was the lesser of two evils.
I will take the liberty of trying the patience of the House by pointing out something that we have probably heard many times before: when Churchill decided to speak up for Joe Stalin and Soviet Russia, he was reminded of his long-standing aversion to the Soviet system and his claim that Bolshevism should have been strangled at birth. His instant response was:
“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would have at least a good word to say for the Devil in the House of Commons!”
How does that relate to the sort of societies we are looking at in the Middle East? Once upon a time, this House had a choice about how to behave towards those societies. In particular, very much in the afterglow of the ending of the Cold War, we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. My Party was in opposition. We believed what we were told, but there was another reason too why people like me spoke and voted in favour of the removal of a particular dictator, Saddam Hussein – we hoped that what would emerge from the removal of such a dictator would be some form of modernisation and democracy. What actually re-emerged was the thousand-year-old hatred between Sunni and Shi’a, particularly between those who line-up with Iran and those who line-up with the Sunnis.
Churchill’s Grand Alliance meant that he had to line-up with Stalin in order to avoid the greater threat posed by Hitlerism. By happy coincidence, we have found ourselves with two debates in the same Chamber on the same day about the two concepts to which, above all, in my personal opinion, we owe the fact that we did not end up with World War Three. The first concept is Deterrence, and the second is the one to which I referred in my intervention on the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)—that is, Containment.
I look at the various societies in the Middle East, because I no longer think that by bringing down dictators we will get pluralistic democracies; and I no longer think, therefore, that if we bring down Assad, we will get a better result than when we brought down Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Gaddafi. When I look at the recommendation that we heard from the Defence Secretary in answering a Defence question only yesterday – that our aim, by bombing, will be to get rid both of Assad and of the Islamist danger of ISIL – I ask myself how this is different from the generalship of the First World War which could perhaps have been excused for the Somme but certainly could not have been excused for Passchendaele the following year.
If one does the same thing over and over again and expects to get a different result, then one is insane, and if one does something that worked in the past, then one might get a better result. For Russia, what worked in the past was a combination of deterrence and containment. I look at Iran and say to myself:
“Here is a prime candidate for containment”,
because Iran is an authoritarian society, and parts of it may be described as totalitarian, but certainly the impression I get from people who talk about it and know about it is that it is far short of the sort of extremist totalitarianism that features in the concept that underlies ISIL or, I must say, the reality that underlies the society of Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to be our ally.
When I look at these different societies, I ask myself which are the most likely, if we can contain them, or keep the lid on them, to develop and evolve – just as our own society, over 500 years or more, developed and evolved – in a modernising direction. I think that Iran is a strong candidate for a society which, if contained and prevented from doing something too terrible, has the prospect of developing in precisely the way described by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, such that it comes back into the comity of nations and does not go further and further into extremism that is exported. The extremist Islamist creed is a fascist, totalitarian creed. Iran, like the Stalinists, has the potential for being held in check and allowing a modernising trend to emerge.
I was interested in what the Chairman of the Committee said when he cited a former Ambassador to Iran as evidently someone who thought that there was hope of positive development. On Syria, I have been in close touch with Mr Peter Ford, a former Ambassador to Syria who likewise sees the regime there as brutal, or perhaps worse than brutal, but as authoritarian rather than totalitarian. In a choice between freedom, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, we all choose freedom, but sometimes the choice is only between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. The Government want us to choose neither. That is not Churchillian. Churchill knew the difference, and faced with totalitarianism or authoritarianism, I know which choice I would make.